Neal Barrett, Jr. has suggested that his writing constitutes a genre of its own; and his latest novel, Interstate Dreams, does much to bear this out. The story of "Dreamer", whose experiences indeed encapsulate the random symbolic exuberance of a dream, occupies a position between two literary states or genres, the Elmore Leonard crime caper on the one hand and magic realism on the other; and this is a fertile interweaving. In line with magic realism, Barrett captures very accurately the enchanting strangeness of ordinary Texan life, the peculiar beauty of its sultry wisecracking arduousness, but he enlivens this with the slick slapstick of the comic crime novel, so that every event is hilarious, plot-driven, larger than life. Like The Hereafter Gang (1991), his earlier, more profound venture into this territory, Interstate Dreams is splendidly sui generis, an imaginative law unto itself. And it employs this license to wonderful effect, visiting some very peculiar places, dreams, or states of being.
Returning from service with the US military in a war in some part of tropical "bananaland", Dreamer (the only name the text ever bestows on him) has acquired a peculiar ability, apparently related to a chunk of shrapnel or debris embedded in his head. He sees "colours" that act as clues to the dispositions of other people and of events generally, and in line with these can somehow open any locked door, silence any electronic alarm. Although he is independently and contentedly wealthy (by pure luck) and behaves in strict accordance with a consistent ethical code of his own (thou shalt not steal, only retrieve from wrongdoers what they have themselves purloined), he is assumed by the criminals of Austin and Houston, not the most morally perceptive constituency in Texas, to be a colleague and likely catspaw. He is soon entangled in their nefarious scams and intrigues, which fall out somewhat as follows. Mako Binder, the regional Mafia Boss and posturing bonehead, wishes to expand traditional prostitution with the help of genetic engineering; his accomplice in this, the biotech tycoon and marginal personality Halloran Horn, endeavours fearfully but half-heartedly to go along with Binder's scheme; an aberrant and gross billionaire, Augustus "Gus" Brauweiler, muddies the waters with megalomaniacal fixations, including one on the acquisition of a lost World War One aircraft; and the Saudi (?) prince Abn-el-Yusuf, in attempting to purchase everything in sight with his oil millions, despoils and kidnaps, his shelter provided by numerous bodyguards and a claim of diplomatic immunity. In the face of these competing machinations, Dreamer is desperately adrift; but this is not all that torments him.
Like many Barrett protagonists, Dreamer is a womaniser of immense prolific facility. While he dodges the temptations and tantrums of mobsters and manipulators, Dreamer encounters one winsome woman after another; he has a sort of girlfriend in Brauweiler's effective but confused attorney Eileen, but is also drawn to an innocently promiscuous young whore and to Horn's wife, and is platonically linked to Diane, a little girl who spouts Arthurian rhetoric at will... All of this complicates an already crowded and pell-mell plot, but not unduly: Dreamer may just barely survive, helped by a Big Mama barbecue operator and prophet, the small army of gung-ho black vigilantes who patronise her establishment or know people who do, an obese but effective police detective, and an Hispanic financier with pugilist connections. Barrett's style, variously punchy, poetic, and psychedelic, harmonises and invigorates this astonishing farcical brew, and it is heady indeed.
At the same time, Neal Barrett, Jr. is a writer of subtlety and sensitivity, and Interstate Dreams, for all its kinetic intensity, retains a layer of genuine seriousness, as magic realist novels characteristically do. The grim potentials of social and criminal abuse; the danger of allowing wealth to accumulate in irresponsible deranged hands; sexual politics; the continuation of Texas' ingrained and instinctive racism: all these obtain a hearing here, as in The Hereafter Gang and Perpetuity Blues. The frenetic performance of Barrett's cast occurs on a stage of trouble and disquiet, and throws an humane, if at times distracted, light on this sinister tortured backdrop.
(Order from Mojo Press, P. O. Box 1215, Dripping Springs, Texas 78620, USA; or visit www.mojo.com)
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© Nick Gevers 29 July 2000